Russia's Strategy of Destabilization in Montenegro →
Russia's Strategy of Destabilization in Montenegro →
Russia’s Strategy of Destabilization in Montenegro Reuf Bajrović, Vesko Garčević & Richard Kraemer Russia Foreign Policy Papers Foreign Policy Research Institute Hanging by a Thread:
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4 Hanging by a Thread: Russia’s Strategy of Destabilization in Montenegro By: Reuf Bajrović, Vesko Garčević & Richard Kraemer Reuf Bajrović is a former Minister of Energy in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina government. Previously, he founded and served as president of the Washington-based civic advocacy group, the Emerging Democracies Institute. He founded the Civic Alliance party in Bosnia Herzegovina. He holds an MA in Democracy and Human Rights and an MA in Governance and Policy of European Integration, both from University of Bologna. He holds a BA in political science from University of Louisville.
Ambassador Vesko Garčević has been teaching as a Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Frederick S.Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University sinceJuly2016. During his diplomatic career, he held several important positions at the challenging political time of the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and democratic transition of Montenegro. From January 2015 through June 2016, Garčević was National Coordinator for NATO. He had been Ambassador of Montenegro to NATO from 2010 to 2014 as well as the bilateral Montenegrin Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. He served as Ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro, and Montenegro to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE) in Vienna from 2004 to 2008. Richard Kraemer is a Fellow of FPRI’s Eurasia Program and formerly senior program officer for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey at the National Endowment for Democracy. Previously, he oversaw projects in the aforementioned countries and the Levant at the Center for International Private Enterprise. Earlier, he further taught and researched at the Jagellonian University in Poland. He is also an affiliated expert of the Public International Law and Policy Group, having advised the governments of Georgia and Montenegro. He has a particular interest in the role that democracy assistance plays in the maintenance of U.S. national security. He holds a BA from William and Mary and a JD from American University. Russia Foreign Policy Papers
5 Foreign Policy Research Institute Executive Summary In December 2015, Montenegro opted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),andindoingsocategoricallyrebuffedtwoyearsofRussianeffortstosecureapo rt there for the replenishment and repair of Russian military vessels. Russia then embarked on a new strategy: stoking political and ethnic divisions to destabilize Montenegro and preclude further Western integration. In the Kremlin’s best-case scenario, a pro-Russia government would come to power and reverse Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic course. To this end, Russia coordinated with local opposition and Serb ethno-nationalists in an unsuccessful attempt to topple the democratically elected government of Montenegro in October 2016.
Despite the coup’s failure, the future of Montenegro’s progress toward Western integratoin remains uncertain. The institutional actors behind the failed coup attempt remain largely in place and steadfastly opposed to NATO membership. Should they come to power, they likely would withdraw Montenegro from the Alliance, retract its recognition of Kosovo, and potentially reunite with Serbia. Thus, to prevent the reversal of Montenegro’s Western trajectory, the U.S. and its NATO allies immediately must work to deepen their engagement with the country. Without undertaking measures to strengthen military cooperation, facilitate democratic reforms, accelerate the European Union accession process, and renew financial support for programs in the rule of law, the West is unprepared to counter Russia’s destabilizing efforts.
6 Russia Foreign Policy Papers Russia in the Balkans Russia vocally has opposed the expansion of Euro- Atlantic institutions into the Balkans, which it perceives as part of its sphere of influence.1 When the Kremlin feels that its influence is eroding in this region vis-à-vis the West, it becomes a destabilizing force. This is a concern of Moscow’s throughout the Western Balkans, and in particular, in Montenegro. The Kremlin knows that instability brings underperformance in governance and the economy. It also believes—as demonstrated by the wars in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014)—that a conflict-averse Europe and U.S. will not integrate states where political instability is chronic. For example, NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) is a “NATO programme of advice, assistance and practical support tailored to the individual needs of countries wishing to join the Alliance.”2 Within this context, fulfilling minimum NATO membership requirements includes full civilian control of military, compatibility of NATO forces, democratic governance, and progress towards a market economy.3 These requirements cannot be met in a state of chronic political dysfunction where intolerance and acrimony is pervasive and institutionial corruption is common. To this end, Russia has adopted a strategy of stoking political and ethnic divisions and rewarding crony capitalism in target states, aiming to impede further Euro-Atlantic integration. In Montenegro, the placement of a pro-Russian, anti-Western government in Podgorica is essential to Moscow’s strategy to thwart greater Western 1 Reacting to Montenegro’s invitation to join NATO, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman stated, “Russia has repeatedly warned that the continuing expansion of NATO . cannot fail to lead to actions in response . from Russia.” See “Montene- gro invited to join NATO,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 2, 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/montenegro-na- to-invite/27401948.html. See, also, warnings made by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Sergei Zelenyak in Belgrade, December 26, 2015; and Gordana Knezevic, “Montenegro’s NATO-Russian Chess Match,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 2, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/montenegro-nato-rus- sia-chess-match/28210094.html.
2 Membership Action Plan (MAP), North Atlantic Treaty Orga- nization, https://www.nato.int/cps/ua/natohq/topics_37356.htm (accessed May 22, 2018). 3 “Minimum requirements for NATO membership,” US State Department, https://1997-2001.state.gov/regions/eur/fs_members. html. engagement in its perceived sphere of influence. A crucial Russian entry point lies in its exploitation of ultranationalistic sentiments couched in Pan- Slavism. Appealing to a broadly Slavic heritage, common Christian Orthodox faith, and Russia’s historically patriarchical role in the region stemming from the mid-to-late 19th century, the Kremlin works to forge common cause with ethnic Serbs. Extreme Serb nationalism, coupled with its vision of Greater Serbia (the unification of all ethnic Serbs into one state), creates fertile grounds for recruitment to Russian-backed political and paramilitary activities. Montenegro has its share of groups promoting ethno-nationalist ideologies to which a portion of its Serbian population is sympathetic, if not outright supportive.4 The primary Serb ethno-nationalist political force is the Democratic Front (DF), a coalition made up of several Serb nationalist parties known for their pro-Russian affiliation comprising: the Democratic People’s Party, New Serb Democracy, Democratic Serb Party, and the Yugoslav Communist Party of Montenegro. Russian media is supportive of the DF and other right-leaning, Serb nationalist political groups in Montenegro, including non-governmental organizations such as the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro and No to War, No to NATO, noteworthy for their anti-Western rhetoric and pro-Russian stances. Given Russia’s means of political leverage and the geopolitical stakes, Montenegro’s continued Western trajectory remains at risk.
Montenegro in a Geopolitical Context Montenegro is a parliamentary republic located on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea. By the World Bank’s classification, the country of 642,500 is upper middle-income.5 After the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Montenegro joined its neighbor Serbia to establish the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. This state union existed until 2006 when the majority of Montenegrin citizens voted for independence in a nationwide referendum. 4 For more background on the role of formal and informal ultra- nationalist Serb groups, see, “Bosnia on the Russian Chopping Block: The Potential for Violence and Steps to Prevent It,” For- eign Policy Research Institute, March 16, 2018, pp. 8-10, https:// www.fpri.org/article/2018/03/bosnia-russian-chopping-block-po- tential-violence-steps-prevent/.
5 Country data, World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/country/ montenegro (accessed April 14, 2018).
7 Foreign Policy Research Institute Under the leadership of Milo Djukanovic,6 Montenegro consistently has sought deeper relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO)andtheEuropeanUnion(EU). However, a considerable minority (approximately 35-40%)7 of the population remains skeptical of this path.8 These segments question Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic partnerships for a variety of reasons, including the historical permeation of Pan-Slavism with attendant Pan-Orthodox leanings9 and resentment of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign 6 Milo Djukanovic, re-elected as the country’s president on April 15, 2016, has served either in that office or as prime minister in several governments from 1991 to the present.
7 See, “Growth in support: 47.3 percent of citizens to join NATO” [Rast podrske: za ulazak u NATO 47.3 odsto gradana], Crna Gora, February 1, 2016, http://crna.gora.me/vijesti/politika/rast- podrske-za-ulazak-u-nato-473-odsto-gradana/. 8 Levels of skepticism of NATO membership in Montenegro are not uniquely high in comparison to other NATO states; e.g. 30 percent in Germany and over 40 percent in France. See, “Sup- port for NATO is widespread among member nations,” Pew Research Center, July 6, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact- tank/2016/07/06/support-for-nato-is-widespread-among-member- nations/.
9 The Pan-Slavic political movement grew out of the 1848 Spring of Nations, around which time the Slavic peoples of the Hapsburg Empire convened a congress in Prague. Its aim was to secure more democratic representation for its ethnically Slavic subjects. By the 1860s, many of its ideas had become popular in Russia; however, Russian thinkers reshaping it under the premise that the West was culturally bankrupt and spiritually bereft, the latter implying a “redemptive” role for the Orthodox Church. See, also, “Pan-Slavism,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica. com/event/Pan-Slavism (accessed May 22, 2016).
against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The stakes surrounding Montenegro’s geopolitical orientation are high. Geographically, its location on the Adriatic Sea grants deep-water access to the Mediterranean from the ports of Bar and Kotor. Politically, its growing alliance with the Euro-Atlantic Community thwarts local ambitions for a “Greater Serbia”10 and limits Russia’s efforts to expand its influence in the Balkans. Russia’s interest in Montenegro heightened several years ago. As the reliability of its naval base in Tartus, Syria became less certain, Russia began seeking alternatives. In September 2013, the Russian government requested a meeting with the Montenegrin Ministry of Defense to discuss the temporary moorage of Russian warships at the ports of Bar and Kotor. By Moscow’s proposal, Russian ships would dock under a privileged status that would allow for the extensive use of territorial waters. In sum, it was a request to install a Russian naval base in Montenegro. Podgorica rebuked the request, instead referring Moscow to the UN Convention on Law of Sea, whereby Russian ships in need of assistance for refueling or maintenance would be granted as such accordingly. The value to Moscow of an Eastern Mediterranean 10 “Vojislav Seselj: I wanted a ‘Greater Serbia,’” Balkan Insight, June 10, 2013, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/seselj-s- goal-was-greater-serbia.
Port of Kotor, Montenegro. (Source: Shutterstock)
8 Russia Foreign Policy Papers military port should not be underestimated. For example, the Russian Naval Facility in Syria’s Tartus is that navy’s only repair-and-replenishment port in the Mediterranean. According to Russia and Middle East expert Anna Borshchevskaya, “A port allows a country to project power and support military operations. Russian naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean helps protect against a possible blockade seeking to punish or topple the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus.”11 The Russian navy further has an operational role in the conflict, as demonstrated by the deployment of Russia’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its Northern Fleet strike group in October 2016. Although playing a secondary role in airstrikes, 40 Russian naval aircraft conducted a sizeable number of sorties in Syrian—over 400 in a two- month period, hitting a reported 1,252 targets, according to Russian news.12 LackingareliableportintheEasternMediterranean, Russia’s strategic capability in the region is limited. For example, the Kuznetsov group was denied port by European NATO member states in its voyage from its home port of Severomorsk. Absent a bilateral agreement with a coastal state, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea does not obligate states to provide facilities for refueling, repair, or moorage. Reliable port access in the 11 Interview with Anna Borshchevskaya, Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 8, 2018. 12 “Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier’s experience in Syria included in-training programs,” Tass Russian News Agency, October 30, 2017, http://tass.com/defense/973134. Eastern Mediterranean remedies that strategic limitation. Unable to approach NATO member states, Russia’s remaining options for basing were less stable North African states and Cyprus, with the talks with the latter and Egypt failing to bear fruit. These factors help to explain Russia’s 2013-14 drive to secure a deal with Montenegro’s government for the usage of ports in Bar and Kotor.
Given the strategic significance and consequent effort Russia placed on naval presence in Montenegro, the Kremlin’s response to NATO’s membership invitation was predictably caustic and threatening.13 President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dimitry Peskov, stressed that Russia has repeatedly warned, “The continuing expansion of NATO and the military infrastructure of NATO to the east cannot fail to lead to actions in response from the East - that is, from Russia.”14 Similarly, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs saw NATO’s invitation as openly confrontational, concluding that “this new round of the alliance’s expansion directly affects the interests of the Russian 13 Montenegro’s candidacy for NATO membership commenced with its participation in MAP in 2009; the formal invitation for full membership was extended in December 2015. 14 “Montenegro invited to join NATO,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 2, 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/montene- gro-nato-invite/27401948.html.
Evidence (equipment allegedly prepared for the coup) presented by the Montenegrin prosecutor.a (Source: PR Centar)
9 Foreign Policy Research Institute Federation and forces us to respond accordingly.”15 On Montenegro’s signing of the Protocol of Accession to NATO in May 2016, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said plainly that, “This latest NATO move undertaken . . . will definitely affect Russia’s interests and force us to react.”16 Indeed, the subsequent events of 2016 demonstrated Russia’s commitment to its word.17 The Attempted Coup d’Etat of 2016 On the eve of Montenegro’s 2016 parliamentary elections, police in Podgorica detained former Serbian gendarmerie commander Bratislav Dikic and 19 other individuals on charges of forming a criminal organization with the intent to overthrow the government. Fourteen indictees are currently being tried in Podgorica by Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime Milivoje Katnic. With the support of testimonies, confessions, and physical evidence, the following is alleged. In the months leading up to the parliamentary elections of October 16, 2016, Russian agents, Serbianextremists,andleadersoftheMontenegrin opposition alliance (Democratic Front) prepared to oust the government violently on election night. They planned to instigate political violence with the hope of triggering nationwide protests and toppling the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) government led by Milo Djukanovic. According to officials, Serbian nationals initiated the enterprise in early 2016 under the direction of Russian GRU18 and FSB operatives.19 The planned takeover was relatively straightforward. Under the command of Dikic, a group of 20 individuals dressed in stolen Montenegrin police uniforms were to occupy 15 “Comment by the Information and Press Department on Invitation for Montenegro to Start Talks joining NATO,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation, December 2, 2015, http:// www.mid.ru/en_GB/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/ cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/1963259.
16 “Briefing by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharo- va,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation, May 19, 2016, http://www.mid.ru/en/press_service/spokesman/briefings/-/ asset_publisher/D2wHaWMCU6Od/content/id/2287934. 17 The pro-Russia political coalition Democratic Front began mo- bilizing Kremlin-backed, anti-NATO protests in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica in September 2015. 18 Russian: Glaynoye razvedyvatel’noye uprawleniye; Russia’s military intelligence agency.
19 Russian: Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti; Federal Security Service. parliament on the night ofthe election. Meanwhile, the Democratic Front would declare victory and call on hundreds of mobilized supporters to storm the building. In response, the group of disguised police would fire on opposition protestors. The DF would then call for nationwide protests, alleging that the violence was an attempt to prevent the “victorious” opposition from seizing the reins of government. The plotters also planned to assassinate Djukanovic. In this manner, opposition leadership envisioned a state of emergency as the springboard to state control.20 Montenegrin authorities, however, successfully prevented the coup attempt. On October 12, four days before the elections, former police officer Mirko Velimirovic confessed to his involvement as a gunrunner, giving the Montenegrin authorities their initial lead.21 Investigations ensued, leading to the discovery of encrypted phones among ten individuals, including leaders of the Democratic Front. Arrests commenced, and officials confiscated rifles, spiked road barriers, handcuffs, batons, and other equipment exclusive to the state’s special police.
20 This plan adheres to the fundamental techniques of a coup d’etat, i.e., “The planners of the coup must use the power of the state against its political masters. This is done by a process of infiltration and subversion in which a small but critical part of the security forces are totally subverted, while much of the rest is temporarily neutralized.” Edward Luttawk, Coup d’Etat – A Prac- tical Handbook (New York: Knopf, 1968), preface vii. 21 Simon Shuster, “Q&A: Dusko Markovic, the Prime Minister Stuck between Putin and Trump in the Balkans,” Time, February 16, 2017, http://time.com/4673038/dusko-markovic-montene- gro-russia-nato/.
Alleged coup plotter Nemanja Ristic with Andrej Kindjakov, Russian military attache to Serbia. (Source: fokuspress.com)
10 Russia Foreign Policy Papers As detentions were underway, Montenegrin security services reportedly received communicationsfromSerbia’sSecurityIntelligence Agency (BIA)22 that 50 Russian GRU special forces troops had entered Montenegro’s mountainous Zlatibor region from Serbia on the night of October 15. Their aim was first to neutralize a nearby Montenegrin special forces camp and then to travel to Podgorica to assist Dikic’s group in the planned post-election clashes. Linked through their encrypted phones to indicted Montenegrin plotter Milan Knezevic, the specialists terminated their operation in response to his radio silence. Without further word from BIA, Montenegrin authorities believe that the GRU unit fled Montenegro through neighboring borders.23 Two Russian agents distinct from the group in Zlatibor escaped into Serbia. These GRU operatives, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, had been coordinating coup-related efforts within Montenegro in the months leading up to the election. As word of the plot’s discovery spread, Shishmakov and Popov successfully made their way to Belgrade to be extricated back to Russia by Security Council Secretary and former FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev. BIA communications with Montenegrin counterparts discontinued thereafter.
The day following the foiled attempt, Montenegrin police found discarded weapons including knives, sling-shots,andvariousbluntedinstrumentsacross the country. Apparently, the protestors mobilized for violence concluded that their leaders’ designs had gone to naught. The Accused Responsibility for the attempted coup will be determined in a Montenegrin court. The identities of those accused and their interrelations are well documented. Taken together, there is a compelling case for a trans-border operation involving agents with professional ties to state entities, namely, the Russian and Serbian governments.
Forces of Montenegrin Opposition There exists in Montenegro an integrated political opposition comprising of pro-Russia political 22 Serbian: Besbednoso-Informativna Agencija; Serbia’s intelli- gence agency. 23 Interviews with Montenegrin security and judiciary officials. parties, ultranationalist groups affiliated with Russian counterparts, and the Serbian Orthodox Church.24 Montenegro’s Democratic Front is a multi-party alliance of Russophile, Serb nationalist, and anti-Western political parties. Controlling 18 of Montenegro’s 81 parliamentary seats, the DF is Montenegro’s largest opposition bloc.25 As a coalition, its leadership is officially collective. However, the parties commanding the most seats naturally wield the greatest influence. The core of DF leadership comprises Andrija Mandic of the New Serb Democracy party, Milan Knezevic of the Democratic People’s Party, and Nebojsa Medojevic of Movement for Changes Party. Mandic and Knezevic are both indicted in the coup attempt case. Their primary role was to coordinate Montenegrin plotters’ activities and to assist in the distribution of funds. Medojevic, on the other hand, recently has been charged with laundering Russian money to finance the 2016 DF campaign.26 As in neighboring Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska (RS), Montenegro boasts its own pan-Serb, pro-Russian extremist groups. The paramilitary Balkan Cossacks Army (BKV) is one.27 The purpose of the BKV, which is an affiliate of Russia’s Night Wolves biker group, is unclear, aside from public statements endorsing pan-Orthodoxy for Slavic peoples.28 Formed shortly before the election in Kotor on September 11, 2016, the BKV is led by self-styled Cossack General Viktor V. Zaplatin. A Russian citizen with resident status in Serbia, Zaplatin is a longstandingveteran ofconflicts in the post-SovietspacewithlinkstoRossotrudnichestvo’s 24 Clouded in some dispute, the Metropolitanate of Montenegro officially was united with other dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church following King Aleksandar Karadjordjevic’s declaration in 1920. Despite the dissolution of the FRY almost 100 years lat- er, Montenegro has yet to effectively assert its religious indepen- dence via the establishment of a separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
25 Djukanovic’s ruling DPS holds 35 seats in the current parlia- ment, distinct from seats of other smaller, pro-Western democratic parties. 26 Dusica Tomovic, “Montenegrin Opposition Leader Tried for Money-Laundering,” Balkan Insight, April 18, 2018, http:// www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/montenegro-opposition-lead- er-tried-for-money-laundering-04-17-2018. 27 Serbian – Balkanska Kozacka Vojska. 28 Jasna Vukicevic and Robert Coalson, “Russia’s Friends Form New ‘Cossack Army’ in Balkans,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 18, 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/balkans-rus- sias-friends-form-new-cossack-army/28061110.html.
11 Foreign Policy Research Institute Russian Cultural Center in Belgrade.29 In addition to Zaplatin, key Serbian coup plotters Bratislav Dikic and Aleksandar Sindjelic are BKV members. The Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC)30 is a significant socio-political force in Montenegro, where nearly three-quarters of Montenegrins identify as Orthodox. With its patriarchal seat in Serbia, the SPC in Montenegro is an entirely extra-legal organization, successfully countering any discussion or efforts to change its legal status following Montenegro’s independence in 2006.31 From its uniquely advantageous position, the SPC effectively administers political endorsement, logistical assistance, and financial support to Montenegro’s extremists. For example, while the SPC was not directly implicated in the plot’s attempted execution, it did host an overnight 29 Ibid. Zaplatin is a Russian army veteran of numerous armed conflicts including Bosnia in 1992-93, Abkhazia and South Os- setia in George, Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia/Azerbaijan, and Transnistria in Moldova. He is described in the pro-Russian press in Serbia as the official representative of the Union of Volunteers, a Russian association “to unite the countries volunteers in general projects.” Zaplatin is further associated with Russian strategist in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Aleksandr Borodai.
30 Serbian: Srpska pravoslava crkva. 31 In Montenegro, the Serbian Orthodox Church is an indepen- dent organization registered and with legal status in Serbia. This is a consequence of a 1977 law governing religious group and organizations in Montenegro that provides for official recogni- tion through registration, however exempting those existing in Montenegro prior to 1977. Unwilling to subject itself to the laws of Montenegro for political reasons, the Serbian Orthodox Church has effectively resisted previous efforts to legalize its presence and activities in Montenegro.
meeting of the coup’s leadership at Montenegro’s famed Ostrog monastery just before the elections. This event suggests the culpability of Amfilohije Radovic, the Serbian Church’s Metropolitan Bishop of Montenegro and the Littoral. Ethno-nationalist Serbian Actors Acting independently of their government,32 the Serbian citizens on trial for the attempted coup are deeply integrated in the extremist, pro- Russian ecosystem that permeates Serb majority lands in the Western Balkans. With Serbia as the fulcrum, pan-Serbists must engage with regional counterparts to fulfill their ambitions for a Greater Serbia.
Of the Serbians indicted, Aleksandr Sindjelic sits at the top of the scheme. Sindjelic is the co- founder of the Serbian chapter of Russia’s Night Wolves—Serbian Wolves—and a combat veteran of Ukraine’s Donbass.33 He is accused of serving as the key liaison with the GRU operatives, Shishmakov and Popov. Locally, Sindjelic was tasked with recruiting approximately 300-500 volunteers and distributing hundreds of thousands 32 Statement of Dusko Markovic, Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro, October 17, 2016.
33 “I am a Serb nationalist, they told me that the authorities in Montenegro should be taken down,” Telegraf, October 26, 2017, http://www.telegraf.rs/english/2906860-i-am-a-serb-nationalist- they-told-me-that-the-authorities-in-montenegro-should-be-taken- down-sindjelic-spoke-at-the-trial-of-the-terrorist-attempt-on-the- election-day. Former Russian Institute for Strategic Studies Director Leonid Reshetnikov with Serbian Orthodox Church Bishop of Montenegro and the Littoral Amfilohije Radovic. (Source: riskmanagementlab.com)
12 Russia Foreign Policy Papers of euros for coup-related efforts. The nature of Sindjelic’s relationship with the GRU officers is evidenced by a conversation intercepted on Mirko Velimirovic’s phone, confiscated on his voluntary surrender. In it, Shishmakov and Sindjelic discuss Djukanovic’s planned assassination.34 Working with Sindjelic was Bratislav Dikic, a former Serbian gendarmerie commander. A BKV member, Dikic was to lead the plotters disguised as Montenegrin special police in storming the parliament and later firing on the DF’s assembled protestors. He received 15,000 euros from Sindjelic for his efforts.35 Following their arrests in October 2016, Sindjelic and Dikic agreed to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office in Podgorica.36 They admitted their respective roles in the attempted coup and provided information about key links between local conspirators, Russian agents, and political actors in Montenegro. Each confirmed that the undertaking was fully premeditated and planned in both Serbia and Montenegro.37 Currently at large in Serbia is indicted plotter NemanjaRistic.ASerbiancitizenandBKVmember, the Serbian goverment refuses to extridite Ristic, opting instead to keep him under surveillance despiteanoutstandingInterpolwarrant.38 TheHigh Court in Belgrade ordered he undergo psychiatric treatement in 2015 following threats of violence made to members of the media and former U.S. 34 Interview with special prosecutor for criminal organizations, prosecutor’s office, Montenegrin ministry of justice, Podgorica, March 2018. See, also, Ben Farmer, “Russia plotted to overthrow Montenegro government by assassinating Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic last year, according to senior Whitehall sources,” The Telegraph, February 19, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/ news/2017/02/18/russias-deadly-plot-overthrow-montene- gros-government-assassinating/; and Tomovic, ibid. 35 Dusica Tomovic, “Montenegro opposition slams coup plotter’s ‘witness’ status in court,” Balkan Insight, November 25, 2016, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/news/strategy-western-bal- kans-2018-feb-06_en.
36 Sindjelic confessed having a key role in “recruiting oth- er members of the organization, transferring money between the organizers and members of the group, providing weapons, phones, buying police equipment, uniforms, shields, batons, body armours, tear gas, gas masks and other equipment that would be used by the group members during the attack on the Parliament.” MEMRI Special Dispatch, November 24, 2016, https://www. memri.org/reports/russias-orbit-part-ii-attempted-coup-montene- gro#_edn5.
37 Farmer, ibid. 38 https://www.interpol.int/notice/search/wanted/2016-78727 (accessed April 20, 2018). Ambassador Michael Kirby.39 Ristic is reported to have “working relations” with the Russian military attaché in Belgrade40 and was photographed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his 2016 visit to the city.41 The Russia Hand Russian involvement in the scheme’s formulation and execution began from its inception. GRU agents Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov currently are being tried in absentia in Podgorica fortheiralleged leading roles in the coup attempt.42 After fleeing from Podgorica to Belgrade, the agents were flown to Russia one day prior to the unscheduled arrival of Russian Security Council Director Patrushev.43 Their current whereabouts are unknown.
Shishmakov led the GRU efforts, and his chosen interlocutors were Sindjelic and Dikic.44 Montenegrin authorities claim that in September 2016 Shishmakov and Popov met with Sindjelic in Moscow to finalize the plot and provide 200,000 euros for attendant costs. Evidence of Shishmakov’s involvement is significant. He is recorded in discussion on the encrypted network with plotters Velimirovic and Knezevic, in addition to Sindjelic. In August 39 “Suspect in Alleged Montenegrin Coup Plot Pictured with Lavrov in Belgrade,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Decem- ber 15, 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/montenegro-coup-plot-sus- pect-instagram-lavrov-ristic/28176472.html.
40 “Nemanja Ristic blizak sa vojnim ataseom u Beogradu” [Nemanja Ristic close to the Russian military attaché in Bel- grade], Fokus, January 8, 2017, http://fokuspress.com/u-foku- su/3444-kiev-reporter-nemanja-ristic-blizak-sa-ruskim-vojnim- ataseom-u-beogradu. 41 Ibid. RFE, fn 29. 42 Ibid. The former’s work in Central Europe precedes him, hav- ing been expelled from his post as Deputy Military Attaché at the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on charges of espionage in 2014. 43 Julian Borger and Shaun Walker, “Serbians deport Russians suspected of plotting Montenegro coup,” The Guardian, Novem- ber 11, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/11/ serbia-deports-russians-suspected-of-plotting-montenegro-coup. See, also, “Serbia released Shishmakov at Patrushev’s urging,” Café de Montenegro, March 31, 2017, https://www.cdm.me/ english/serbia-released-shishmakov-patrushevs-urging/. In addi- tion, according to two ranking Montenegrin officials, this plane’s passengers included some remnants of the GRU specialist group that fled from Zlatibor (interviews, Podgorica, March 2018). 44 The State of Montenegro alleges that during the inception phase, both GRU and FSB were pursuing parallel tracks towards an attempted coup; eventually, the GRU’s was judged to have the greater chance for success.
13 Foreign Policy Research Institute 2017, photos of Sindjelic and Shishmakov meeting in a Belgrade park were made public.45 Finally, Patrushev’s presence for the extraction of Shishmakov and Popov not only indicates the depth of their involvement in the attempted coup, but it also suggests—at the very least—official Russian endorsement of the project. The Kremlin denied any involvement in the coup attempt.46 The Aftermath Democratic civil society in Montenegro finds itself in a difficult place. Despite their Euro-Atlantic orientation and ethnically pluralistic platform, Djukanovic and his DPS have dominated the country’s political space for decades, leaving little space for the emergence of democratic alternatives. Indeed, after decades of alternating between the post of president and prime minister, Djukanovic would be well advised to gracefully exit from Montenegrin politics at his term’s end in 2023; whether he will do so remains an open question. Meanwhile, DF opposition bloc’s ultranationalist platfom is a non-starter for democrats desirous of more liberal alternatives. Opposite Djukanovic is a Russophile, ethno- nationalist opposition currently agitating under 45 Ben Farmer, “Surveillance photos show Russian intelligence officers plotting Montenegro coup,” The Telegraph, August 28, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/28/surveil- lance-photos-show-russian-intelligence-officers-plotting/. 46 “Kremlin denies involvement in alleged plot against Montene- gro’s PM,” Reuters, November 7, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/ article/us-russia-montenegro-election-idUSKBN132170?il=0. the DF banner, despite the party’s recent electoral defeats. In Montenegro, ethno-nationalist and anti-Western sentiments remain strong and were such a party or leader to come to power in 2020, Montenegro could retract its recognition of Kosovo, withdraw from NATO, and possibly even reunify with the Republic of Serbia; in sum, to realize ambitions reflecting Pan-Serb and Pan- Slavic ideologies held and promoted by them and their regional counterparts. Stuck with a political system that provides little space for new democratic actors to participate, the country’s politics risk increasing polarization. Here, theWest has an important role to play. Its on- going political, military, and economic engagement with Montenegro helps to keep this Mediterranean nation on its Western trajectory. The current EU strategy for enlargement in the Western Balkans envisions Montenegro’s potential ascension by 2025.47 The EU membership perspective will require sustained efforts and reforms, requiring political will in both Brussels and Podgorica. Renewed financial and technical assistance to the country’s civil society is needed. Montenegro has shown progress in fulfilling its EU accession requirements, as confirmed during a June 2018 meeting between EU President Donald Tusk 47 “Strategy for the Western Balkans,” European Commission, February 6, 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/news/strate- gy-western-balkans-2018-feb-06_en. See, also, https://ec.europa. eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/six-flagship-initia- tives-support-transformation-western-balkans_en.pdf. President Milo Djukanovic meets with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, June 2018. (Source: Euinside.eu)
14 Russia Foreign Policy Papers and Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic.48 For the benefit of its citizens and, indirectly, the region, it remains on track to EU membership. With respect to Montenegro’s newly membership intheAlliance,NATOshouldstrengthenitspolitical and military cooperation with Montenegro by increasingtheregularityandbreadthofjointmilitary trainings and exercises, boosting the NATO naval presence in Montenegrin ports on a permanent or rotational basis, bolstering Golubovci Airbase and Helicopter Center by transforming it into a regional NATO helicopter pilot training facility. Encouraging steps have recently been taken by the U.S. Congress, by passing the U.S. National Defence Authorization Act, which acknowledges the threat of Russian influence in the Western Balkans and the consequent need for military-to- military cooperation there.49 Montenegro’s deeper Western integration should not be taken for granted. Moscow continues to see Southeast Europe as within its sphere of interest, whether as the self-appointed protector of Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule through the Cold War and into its relations with various Serbian and other regional governments post-1989. Indeed, Russia’s willingness to deploy clandestine operations in Montenegro underlines the severity of the threat, demonstrating the lengths Moscow will go in secure its regional interests.
As it seeks new tools to influence Montenegrin politics, Russia will try to cultivate new, less compromised political actors among several recently formed, pro-Russian political parties. It will also continue to cooperate with the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro to fan anti- Western and anti-government sentiment. The DF, together with extremist pro-Russian groups and the Serbian Orthodox Church, will continue to support Russian interests in Montenegro. If a pro- Russian government came to powerin Podgorica, it could not only reverse Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic 48 Press statement, “Remarks by President Donald Tusk after meeting with President of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic,” Council of Europe, June 5, 2018, http://www.consilium.europa. eu/en/press/press-releases/2018/06/05/remarks-by-president-don- ald-tusk-after-his-meeting-with-president-of-montenegro-mi- lo-dukanovic/pdf.
49 “NDAA: Countering Malign Foreign Influence Campaigns,” House Armed Services Committee, May 22, 2018, https://armed- services.house.gov/news/defense-drumbeat/ndaa-countering-ma- lign-foreign-influence-campaigns. course, but it would further jeopardize NATO and EU interests in the Balkans and Mediterranean. The October 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro shows the consequences of insufficient support for the pro-Western governments in the Western Balkans.
16 Russia Foreign Policy Papers In the early hours of May 10, 2018, a shower of airstrikes struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria. Israeli officials claimed the strikes were in response to the 20 Iranian rockets launched at the Golan Heights hours earlier. Iranian media called the attacks “unprecedented,” yet this episode is just the latest in a series of open clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria. Less than a week and a half earlier, on April 29, 2018, more than a dozen Iranian soldiers died from a similar Israeli missile assault. Before that, the most recent military clash occurred in the second week of April. This mid-April clash was the first time that Israel openly took credit for attacking Iranian forces located in Syria—the culmination of a clandestine conflict between Israel and Iran. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Israel has carried out, without taking credit until April 2018, over one hundred airstrikes against the Hezbollah and Iranian strategic capabilities in Syria. In the wake of these clashes, it appears that Moscow has been persuaded that Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria must be distanced from the border with Israel—in exchange apparently for Israeli acquiescence for the return of Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces to these areas. Putin has also called for a removal of all foreign troops from Syria once the Assad regime is in full control of the country.1 Amidst this tension, the role of the conflict’s third major power—Russia—has come up. Having communications with both sides, Russia has the potential to act as a mediator. To assess the role that Russia may play in the standoff, it is important to understand Moscow’s interests in the region and relationships with both sides. While the Russia-Iran partnership has been covered at great depth, Moscow’s relationship with Israel demands more attention. How have these relations fared three years into Russia’s entrance in the Syrian Civil War? Despite their opposing roles in the conflict, Russia and Israel enjoy what one expert calls a “somewhat underrated special relationship.”2 This relationship steadily has improved since its formal restoration in 1991 (it was cut off after the Six Day War in 1967). While it is based primarily on shared economic and political ties, shared strategic interests have grown in recent years. Since Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, each side sees the other as a major player in the region, with the capacity to affect the other’s national security interests. Therefore, both see close strategic engagement as a must.
This report will begin with an assessment of Russia and Israel’s main interests, which collectively define the contours of the relationship. It then will proceed to analyze the relationship’s soft components—social, cultural, and historical ties—and concrete components—political, economic, and military ties. Last, the paper will look at the three main policy areas where the two countries disagree, but where they also see the bulk of their strategic dialogue: Iran, Syria, and Palestine.
Interests The ties between Russia and Israel have evolved as both states developed their individual post-Cold War strategic views and policies. They are a function of interests and, only to a lesser extent, of values and history. The interests of the two states are only rarely identical, but often are in sync. Even in cases where they are opposed, both sides recognize the importance of the other and make significant efforts to deconflict. Russia To understand Russia’s interests toward Israel, it is necessary to first grasp Moscow’s broader foreign policy objectives, both regional and global. Russia is a revisionist power: it seeks to redress what it regards as an unfair distribution of power in the U.S.-led world order.3 According to Russia expert Dmitri Trenin, Putin’s main foreign policy objective in recent years has been to return Russia to the “top level of global politics.”4 The crisis in Syria and the United States’ unwillingness to intervene meaningfully have provided Russia with an opportunity to advance this objective. By injecting itself into an international crisis, Russia heralded its return to the global stage. It prevented what Moscow perceives as a U.S. attempt to build influence on its borders through “color revolutions.” A key component of this 1 Alexander Fulbright, “Israel, Russia said to Reach Secret Deal on Pushing Iran Away from Syria’s Border,” Times of Israel, May 28, 2018; and “Israel Source: Russia to Back Israel Against Iran in Syria,”Middle East Monitor, May 29, 2018. 2 Analyst and former senior diplomat Cliff Kupchan, personal interview with author, April 2018. 3 Robert Kagan, “Backing into World War III,” Foreign Policy, February 6, 2017. 4 Dmitri Trenin, What is Russia up to in the Middle East? (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), pp. 135, 52. Some Russian analysts see the Russian return to the Middle East in a broader geopolitical context. They explain that Russia is disappointed with the West, perceives that the West has turned its back on Russia, and understands that it cannot repair relations with it. Therefore, Russia has made a strategic, rather than tactical, turn to the East, including to the Middle East. (Meetings by the author with Russian officials and analysts in 2016 and 2017). The Foreign Policy Research Institute is a non- partisan, non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization dedicated to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. It seeks to educate the public, teach teachers, train students, and offer ideas to advance U.S. national interests based on a non-partisan, geopolitical perspective that illuminates contemporary international affairs through the lens of history, geography, and culture.
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